Interview:Musician's Friend Artist Spotlight Exclusive Interview with Joss Stone
If your head's been so far into your home studio you haven't heard Joss Stone yet, you're in for a treat. With a sophisticated and soulful vocal instrument that rivals that of R&B's greatest divas, this 18-year old English hottie is rocketing to the top quicker than you can say Aretha Franklin. But rather than riding on the usual studio hype, pitch correction, photo shoots, and gossip rags, this meteoric ascension is fueled by genuine talent. Boatloads of it. Give a listen to "Right to be Wrong ", or "The Chokin' Kind." If you think you're a better R&B singer, you're obviously tripping.
When she was just 15 years old, Stone laid down a collection of classic Motown gems—The Soul Sessions—that immediately went gold. Suddenly Stone was all over the television on the video stations, talk shows, and on sound tracks for E.R., West Wing, and Third Watch. Her second album, Mind, Body & Soul, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that The Soul Sessions was anything but a fluke. Through songs co-written with some of R&Bs most gifted composers, it also gave the world a glimpse beyond the golden voice into the heart of a vibrant young woman.
While the fame machine has a well-earned reputation for chewing up young artists and spitting them out in pieces, this plucky songstress seems anything but jaded. Though already a veteran of years of hard touring, she seems as fresh and enthusiastic in conversation as she looks onstage and in videos. She reacts to the idea of opening for The Rolling Stones (beginning October 17, 2005) the way almost any of us would—with ecstatic disbelief. Musician's Friend reached her by phone on tour.
Musician's Friend: Where are you at today?
Joss Stone: I'm in Denver. It's really lovely.
MF: It's cold there in the winter.
JS: I like the cold, though. I'm really weird like that. I think it's because I'm from England. Whenever it's cold in another country I feel like I'm home.
MF: There's often several feet of snow there in the winter.
JS: Oh really? Wow, that's colder than England. [laughs]
MF: Our audience is all musicians, which is one of the reasons we're so interested in you. You stand almost alone as the young female vocalist who can actually sing.
JS: [laughs] That's sweet!
MF: You co-wrote 12 of the songs on Mind, Body and Soul. Four of them were with Betty Wright, but even those credit other people. There's Child, Reeves, Shorten, Stoker, White, Dozier and Dozier, Greenberg, Pierre, Remi, Morris, Gibbons--a huge list of collaborators. Can you talk some about your creative process and how some of these songs came together?
JS: People often ask how I come up with a song, like: "When you're writing with somebody, do you come up with the melody first or the title first?" And it definitely depends on who I'm writing with. When you're writing with Lamont Dozier, he writes in such a different way than anybody else I know. He just sits there and starts writing like poetry. We'll just be spilling out all these words. And then he'll get his tape recorder on and we'll record a little bit and then he'll put it all together at the end of the day.
But then when I'm writing with Jonathan Shorten and Connor Reeves, Jonathan will make a track and we'll just kind of vibe off of it, get as much of a melody as we can. But it doesn't always go in the same order.
MF: You say he lays down a track. What exactly do you mean?
JS: We'll go in and there will be nothing there. Then they'll start with a beat. Usually the first melody I'll get will be off of just drums. And then he puts in a little piano, a little bass, a little guitar. He just builds as me and Connor are writing the lyrics and melody. It's like something is born. We all create it at the same time.
But when I went to write with Solomon Remi, he had just some of the track ready. Then he makes it while I'm there. It's cool. Some people prefer not to get involved with the lyric, they just want to do the music. And then other people like to do it all. Which is really cool. You know you're getting a good song if there's three people in the room writing it. If there's just one it's only your opinion. But if there's three it's got to be a little bit good.
MF: Do you have a lot to do with writing the lyrics.
JS: Yeah, I do. I like to write the lyrics. When I first started I was really, really nervous and I thought I was s--t at everything, which was probably true at that time. I kind of sat back and watched. I write a lot with Jonathan and Connor, especially at the beginning because they're in England. We wrote so many songs. Only three of them are on the album. And there are a couple of them still that I may put on my next album. We would just write and write and write. I learned to be more confident with them because I got to know them and it was more comfortable. Before that I was so scared I would do the melody and then put in a couple of little words and that was it. And I'd just be really nervous. The first gig I did, I literally stood there with my hair over my face, did not look at the crowd once.
MF: How old were you?
JS: I was 15. It was a small crowd in Miami. Tobacco Road or something like that. It was really, really small but it was packed with all these people. I was crying before I went on. I didn't know what to do. It's the same with anything in your life. The same with writing, same with baking a cake, same with painting a picture. You're always nervous about, "Am I going to be able to do this right?" And then you just learn. You get more comfortable with the crowd and more comfortable with the people you're writing with. And it just comes out. You start to be more creative with it. Like now I'm all around the stage. I'm jumping up and down. Doing all sorts of stuff that I probably shouldn't be doing.
MF: How long did it take to write all the songs that are on Mind, Body and Soul?
JS: Mmmm. I don't know. I got signed when I was 14. But I started writing before I was signed. And then I did The Soul Sessions when I was 15. But I'd already started writing Mind, Body and Soul. The Soul Sessions kind of intruded in my writing. It was just sort of right there. It wasn't really meant to be an album at all. It was meant to be a five-track EP and sell, like a hundred copies. It was just an accident. A good accident, but it was an accident.
MF: I wish I could have accidents like that. [general laughter]
JS: Yeah. I got really lucky. But I guess from 14 to 16 I was writing.
MF: That's great! I want to talk in particular about your song "Right to be Wrong," just because I really like that song. What was the creative process in writing that song?
JS: Basically it was me and Betty . . . oh, sorry that's my dog barking.
MF: You've got your dog with you on the road?
JS: Yeah. She's so cute.
MF: What kind of dog?
JS: She's a teacup poodle. She looks just like Dusty Springfield. So I named her Dusty Springfield Dozier. [general laughter] She's so cute. I love her. Anyway, back to "Right to be Wrong ." That's the first day I met Betty Wright. And I had pink streaks in my hair that day. I was really nervous to go meet her anyway. Because I just love that song "Clean Up Woman." We met at Desmond Child's house. We had lunch. And she was like, "Ohmigod, I love your hair!" [laughs] She says, "You're so much like me when I was a kid." Because she started when she was 14. Then Desmond disappeared off somewhere and we went into the room and just wrote this song.
Betty's always talking in lyrics. She sat down at the dinner table while we were eating lunch and said something like, "You've got a right to be wrong." And Steve was like, "That's got to be the title!" And Betty was like, "O.K., lets write a song called "right to be wrong" ! And we did. She made me feel very comfortable. She's a cool girl.
MF: How much involvement did you have in the production side of Mind, Body and Soul?
JS: I had ideas and they made me think that they were listening to me. But I doubt it. If I'm honest with myself . . . I'm the kind of person who can't keep quiet if I think something. I say, "Maybe try this, try that." Mike Mangini is always nice. He'd say, "O.K. let’s try it." I basically have no idea what went into the production. I was like "Lets use Questlove" because I love him. But that's pretty much it. But on the next one I've been writing a little bit and I really want to get into the music. I want to learn guitar and stuff. Singing is one thing. But I don't want to just be a singer. I want to be involved in everything else so I feel like the whole thing is my creation. Everyone was telling me when I was doing both of the albums, "It's all about you, Joss. It's all about you." And that pissed me off because it's not. It's so not all about me. Because if I didn't have the musicians, I would just be a voice. If I didn't have the producer, it would be stupid. If I didn't have the writers, I would have s--t songs. I need a lot of different people. It's not all about me. But I would like to be able to be more independent. Obviously you're not going to listen to a 15-year-old child. I wouldn't. I know how to sing and I can write a song. But I can't play any instruments. I want to be able to do that so I can have a say and feel confident in what I'm talking about.
MF: And it's easier to communicate an idea to someone on an instrument.
JS: Exactly. I can say "play this on the guitar," and I have to sing it to them. I can't tell them what note it is. I have no idea. And then they start saying, "Sing the E flat," I'm like, "What's that? Play it for me on the piano and I've got you. But otherwise . . ."
MF: Are you excited about opening for The Stones? [October 17, 19, 21 and Nov. 6 and 8, 2005]
JS: Yes, I am! I'm mostly excited but I'm very nervous. Who wants to see Joss Stone before The Stones? That's ridiculous!
MF: Me. I would want to see Joss Stone before The Stones. A lot of people would.
JS: [laughs] This is The Rolling Stones! I'm thinking, "Ohmigod, what am I doing?" Like when I did the LiveAid thing, I felt so stupid being there. I felt very privileged and very blessed that anybody would even consider me to do it. But then I got there and there were so many people there. Robbie Williams was there, and Annie Lennox, Madonna, all these people, Paul McCartney, and then me. [laughs] I felt so dumb and really very silly being there. And it's the same thing with The Rolling Stones. Ohmigod, these people are The Rolling Stones! That's all I really need to tell you.
MF: Have you met any of them?
JS: I have! Mick Jagger. I sang a song with him on the Alfie soundtrack. I did three songs on that soundtrack. And he wrote one of them. It's really cool.
MF: They're the ones that should be nervous! [general laughter] You're going to rock that show.
JS: I'm going to try. But you know what, it'll probably be half empty anyway when I come on. But the fact that I get to open for The Stones is something I'm going to put in my diary.
MF: You think you'll get a chance to get up onstage and sing with them?
JS: No! Ohmigod! I'd kill myself! That's very scary!
MF: Well, don't kill yourself, because it seems like a real possibility to me.
JS: No. If I could, I would. But I doubt it. [laughs] That would be madness!
MF: Let's talk about your formal musical background. Of course you got into singing very early. Did you have formal voice lessons or music lessons early on?
JS: No. Actually I was at school. We had music lessons. And I never really went. I loved the music lesson because my teacher, Lee Bains, was the coolest, nicest teacher, the best. And he's very, very talented. And he didn't know I could sing until my mum told him, which was quite embarrassing. I love music, so I took music. But I didn't know how to play anything. So it must have seemed quite weird to him since he didn't know I could sing. He must have thought, "This girl just wants to listen." I was very into everything. But as soon as it came to "explain this" or "write about this," I was just like "ugh, whatever. Please just give me a CD player and I'm chillin'." He would let us just go out onto the field and listen to music and just chill for like an hour! And then we're done. There were essays we had to write and stuff. But I never really got 'round to that. Because what's the point? I knew that the Beatles didn't make these songs just to piss off little kids when they have to write an essay! It's the same thing with Shakespeare. He didn't write all these plays to have kids hate them because they have to write about it. He just wanted to entertain.
Then they had parents’ evening and Lee was telling my mum, "Joss is really great. I love her. But I don't think she really gets into the reading of music"--because I'm dyslexic anyway, so I can't even read English, let alone music--"and she didn't really try with the reading of the music and stuff." And Mum says, "Well, you know, she can sing really well." He says, "Really?" "Yeah, you should put her in a choir or something." He comes up to me, "Joss, your mum told me you could sing. Come join our choir!" I thought, "This is so embarrassing." I just didn't want anybody to know. But I did go to the choir and I stood at the back with a piece of paper in front of my face and chilled. I wasn't up front. There was already a girl who was a great singer and always up front and confident with it. I was like, "OK, thank God. I'm just going to chill in the corner."
I used to love drama, too. So I got into the play and they gave me a singing part. And I just fell into it. It was a '50s music kind of thing. And I had two songs to sing. And it was fun. So after I found out that it was kind of fun and not so serious and not so embarrassing, and not everybody was saying, "You're s--t," I went with that.
MF: Well, we're glad you did. What advice can you give young vocalists about developing their vocal chops?
JS: This is the thing. I kind of messed up my vocal chords a little bit. So if I give advice, they probably shouldn't take it. I've been very lucky because I never liked being told what to do or lessons or anything like that. I like to do my own thing. I hate to be stuck in a room warming up. It just annoys me. Just give me a CD and I'll sing along. So because of that my voice has got nodules all over it and I sing in the wrong way. But it sounds OK, so whatever. Doesn't matter, right? In my gig there's a part where my backing singers sing. And one of the reasons is because I need a rest. Because my voice is so tired. I tire out my voice really very quickly.
MF: Do you do any warmup exercises now?
JS: Now I do exercises with my backing singers before I go onstage. But I didn't have the discipline. I'm really not good at that. The advice I would give--and it's really boring and it's really s--t that you have to do it if you want to be a long-term singer--warm up! Warm up every day. I wouldn't say, "Go to a singing teacher and let them teach you how to sing." Because then they would change you into whatever singer they wish for you to be. But you should go to a teacher that will teach you how to breathe and how to stretch your vocal chords out.
MF: Did you go to a teacher and do that?
JS: Yeah, Lon Anderson. I've just recently started to go to him. He's so cool and so nice. And he's not like a teacher teacher. He's so much fun to be around. And he doesn't teach me how to sing the words. He doesn't take a song and say, "OK, sing it like this." Because that would just annoy me. Because that's the whole point of singing is to have your own vibe on it and feel it the way you feel it. And nobody else can change that for me. You can't teach that to anybody. But he stretches my voice out. And I feel it getting warmer in there. It feels weird. Some days it hurts, even. But if you're a runner you stretch before you run and then it lasts longer. But before I was just bashing at my vocal chords. People love the sound of it, but it f--kin' hurts, man. It really does. But it's cool. As long as I can keep singing, it's cool. I don't mind if it hurts. I just want to be able to keep singing.
MF: And you have somebody watching now making sure you're not doing more damage to your vocal chords?
JS: Yeah they have. They've been looking at them. And I feel like a naughty girl. I'll get in trouble, "You have to do your warmups and your warmdowns and da da da da da!" And he's completely right. But I'm just so lazy.
MF: What kind of exercises do you do for warmup?
JS: There's one where you have to stick your tongue out really far and yawn and make a noise when you yawn and make it higher and higher and higher. It opens your whole throat out. And there's one that's warming up your lips. And there's all sorts of really weird-sounding things. And usually in the warmups you don't sound soulful. You sound like an opera singer. But it feels really good. It doesn't hurt.
MF: You don't want to do that stuff in a restaurant.
JS: No! [general laughter] It's not the most attractive thing to do. But it's really good for you.
MF: You mentioned a warmdown. What's that?
JS: You just do your warmup again afterwards. I usually forget to do that. That's my problem. And then I always end up in a meet-and-greet after the show.
MF: What's that like for you?
JS: It's OK. Sometimes it's really odd. Because you walk into a room and you've just done a show. It may have gone good, it may have gone bad. And there's 20 or 30 people staring at you like you're a tourist attraction. It's very scary. But it's sweet because they're all very nice and they're all there just because they like your music. But it's quite strange. It's very awkward. I'm just a person that's making a noise you happen to like. I'm not Nelson Mandela! I would understand it if I were. I had to learn to say thanks. At the beginning somebody would walk up and say, "You are the greatest singer in the world." I'd just look at them like, "No I'm not." And my mom would like [whispers] "just say thank you." "But I'm not. Don't say stupid s--t, I'm not." [laughs] "It's very nice that you said that but, I mean, come on I'm really not!" So I had to learn just to say "thanks!" They're just up because they had a good night.
But it's such a strange thing to get used to. I was just this girl who nobody noticed and nobody gives a s--t about. And now people are like, [breathlessly] "Can I take your picture?" in the airport. Some guy came up to me, "Can I take your picture?" and he took it on his phone. And I said to my friend Allison, "Three years ago he would erase that picture off his phone without knowing who it was. He wouldn't care who it was. It wouldn't make any difference to him." But just because I make this little noise . . . it's crazy. People go completely weird. [laughs]
MF: When you suddenly found yourself working with hardcore experienced pros in the Soul Sessions, were there any difficulties catching on to what was happening musically? Did you have to learn a new language to communicate with those people?
JS: Yeah, a little bit I did. At the very beginning I didn't know what a harmony was. I didn't know anything. I'd be rehearsing with my band and they'd say, "Come in on the one." "Come in on the what?" He'd say, "It's all marked." I'd say, "If it's all marked I'd better just quit now, because that isn't going to work for me." Usually I can just feel it. I said, "Just give a nod and I'll know when to come in. And that'll work for me." And then I'd come in at the right time. But I didn't know when that was. I just felt it and I'd come in. Now I kind of get it, but I still don't really understand them. They still have to explain to me where f--king one is. But it's definitely getting better. But I'm glad that I didn't know all of that stuff when I started. Because I think my music would be so much more controlled. And it's not. I just sing. When things go wrong when I'm onstage I don't even know about it. When my band plays on for too long or stops short it doesn't matter. I know when they're going to stop because I can feel it.
MF: Obviously you're a big fan of Betty Wright and Aretha.
MF: Who inhabits the top echelons of your pantheon of vocal heroes?
JS: There's Aretha. Gladys Knight is outstanding. Melissa Etheridge, Annie Lennox, Anita Baker, James Brown, Al Green. Otis Redding, oh God, I love Otis Redding. india.arie, Lauren Hill, Maxwell. He has a very nice voice. I don't know where he went, but hopefully he'll come back.
MF: Who influenced you when you were really young?
JS: One of the first songs when I was about five was Whitney Houston, "I'll Always Love You." That's the one I remember from when I was really a baby. I just loved it. My parents knew. "This is your favorite song. My God, you sound just like her," which was overtly a lie, again.
MF: So you were singing at home even when you were just a little kid?
MF: Are you working on a new record?
JS: Yes, I am. I just wrote two songs the other day. With Justin Gray and Danny P. [Daniel Pierre]. They wrote "Don't Know How" on my last record. They're so much fun to work with. And they're really, really cool. One of the songs I really love.
MF: So you'll just be working on that on the road as you go?
JS: I'm trying. I just haven't got much time. But I've made a couple of spaces now. So I'm going to get some time.
MF: Thanks so much for talking with us.
JS: Thank you. Bye.
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